When False Religions Deceive

| 1 John 2:18-29

Week of February 24, 2019

The Point: Truth is grounded in the reality of who Jesus Christ is.

Warning Concerning Antichrists: 1 John 2:18-29.

[18] Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. [19] They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. [20] But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. [21] I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth. [22] Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. [23] No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also. [24] Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. [25] And this is the promise that he made to us–eternal life. [26] I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. [27] But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie–just as it has taught you, abide in him. [28] And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. [29] If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him. [ESV]

“Realism about the enemy [2:18-23]. John knew that he was involved in a battle for truth, and so are we. If the false teachers gain the upper hand, the Christian church will soon be shorn of her power. If she becomes indistinguishable from the world around her, she and her distorted message will go the way of that world. They will pass away. That is precisely the tragedy we see today in those churches which have progressively deserted the apostolic gospel during this century and emptied their buildings of worshipers. If this generation of evangelical Christians is not committed to believing, living and passing on God’s truth, now while we have the opportunity, there may not be another generation of evangelicals. But we are tempted to shrug off these warnings because of the relativism of our culture. We no longer believe in anything objective out there that corresponds to reality. So with the enlightenment of contemporary intellectual tolerance, Christians are permitted to believe in God, if they insist, but not to propagate such beliefs or expect others to get involved. Yet who would be content to act on that basis in other areas of life, where the question of right and wrong, truth or falsehood, has more obviously dramatic implications? As much as we might like to pretend we live in a world without absolutes, in practice none of us can live that way. Our world and our lives within it are finite. There is a structure of reality that exists, and in the spiritual realm as well as in the physical this means that some beliefs are true and others false. For example, the law of gravity will always apply. The apostle’s concern here is to instruct us on how we can distinguish the true from the false in practice. Taking up the theme of verse 17, that the world and its desires are passing away, John speaks in verse 18 of the last hour. This matches the New Testament phrase the last days, which refers to the period between the first and second comings of Christ. From the divine perspective, there is only one climactic event in history that remains to be accomplished, and that is the return of Christ as King and judge. The whole period is marked by hostility from the world, sometimes in the form of infiltration of the church with error, sometimes in the form of direct persecution. Towards its end, what we might call the last of the last days, the opposition of these antichristian forces will intensify, in anticipation of the moment of consummation when Christ appears. Until then, Christians are to be on their guard, recognizing the enemy and counteracting his tactics.

(1) How to recognize antichrists. Verse 18 speaks of both that antichrist and many antichrists. Interpreters differ as to whether this is a specific individual or an all-pervading ideology. What is clear from the New Testament is that antichristian forces will manifest themselves in their implacable opposition to Christ and His church in every generation. There are at least two predominant ideas in the use of this term. The first is of a rival to Christ, who claims to possess all the power and ability of Christ. The second is of opposition to Christ, deliberately standing over against Jesus and His righteousness and truth. The antichrist is thus a usurper, who, under false pretenses, assumes a position to which he has no right, and who resolutely opposes the rightful owner of that position, Christ. This deception must be detected and opposed in both our belief and our behavior. (a) Belief [22-23]. The repetition of denies here makes this a very strong statement indeed. Everything depends on what a person believes about Jesus Christ. If an individual does not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was and is the Christ, God’s own Son, sent from the Father, then he is (literally) against Christ. This means that he cannot be in a right relationship to God the Father, for he is denying the whole basis on which such a fellowship could exist. It is an important test, which must be applied to any religious teaching we may hear. Historically this has provided the Christian church with her motivation for mission. We do not believe that all roads lead to the light. Those belief-systems which deny the deity of Christ are antichrist. This means that millions who are enmeshed in false religions and ideologies are caught up in systems that are lies, and desperately need to hear God’s truth. It means, too, that the church must be on the watch against those who infiltrate its own ranks and yet who deny either the full humanity or the full deity of Christ. The most penetrating and wounding attacks come from within. To deny the second person of the Trinity involves denial of the first. John is making doctrinal statements, separating truth from lies. Verse 23 could hardly be more categorical. You cannot have God without believing in Jesus. Christ Himself said, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me [John 14:6]. If that route is rejected, there is no other. There is only one true God and He is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Without the Son, we cannot know the Father. Those who deny this may use the word “God”, but they cannot know Him. (b) Behavior [19]. Ultimately antichrists dissociate themselves from those who hold to orthodox Christian doctrine, but they are extremely dangerous just because they originate from within the church and often take a long time to surface. John points out that their eventual apostasy proves that they are not simply confused, untaught Christians. Because they so vigorously oppose the truth, they cannot co-exist with strong biblical teaching. Their behavior confirms the heresy of their beliefs. Of course this does not mean that everyone who leaves a church is antichrist; but when a group separates itself into an elite, holier-than-thou huddle, claiming a deeper understanding or experience than other gospel people, beware. It will not be long before unbalanced teaching begins to lead its adherents away into undisguised error. Once the central truths of the faith are denied, the appetite for Christian fellowship is lost.

(2) How to counteract antichrists. Mere recognition of error is not enough. We have to counteract it by firmly holding to and living out the truth – not just giving it intellectual credence, but embracing it and making it the very heartbeat of our lives. It is a high level of commitment to God’s truth by His people that most effectively defeats the antichrist. John’s emphatic words in verse 20, But you are the first in a series of counter-attacks which follow in the next few paragraphs (2:27, as his anointing teaches you; 3:2, but we know; 3:5, you know). The world with its deceptive attractions, and the false teachers with their deceptive doctrines and lifestyle, might easily snare God’s children and prevent them from practicing God’s truth, but … Verses 19 and 21 show us how to resist and overcome in our belief and in our behavior. (a) Belief [20-21]. But you have been anointed. Christ is the Anointed One, who has given the anointing to every believer in Him. This makes us all anointed ones or Christians. The Greek word (chrisma) translated anointed here is also translated elsewhere as gifts [e.g. Eph. 4:7-8]. The universal gift of the ascended Christ is the Holy Spirit, whose great ministry is to guide all of God’s children into God’s truth [John 16:13] through the apostolic testimony. Every Christian knows the truth because without it he could not be a Christian. But the fact that anyone knows it at all is attributable solely to the gift of God’s grace, in the person and work of the Holy Spirit. The thrust of verse 21 is therefore to hold on to what you already know, not to give up ground to some new speculative theory or to teaching which actually denies the essentials of the faith. Even when we are assailed by doubts, it is not reasonable to surrender what we do know because there are things we do not know. The answer to doubt lies not so much in faith as in truth. Faith may come to mean a subjective exercise, whereas truth has an objective reality outside of ourselves. We would be fools indeed not to believe it! On that footing we come to doubt our doubts, rather than God’s truth. (b) Behavior [19]. We need to make sure that we continue in the fellowship of like-minded Christians. We need one another, not to boost our flagging morale, but to encourage one another on in the things that matter most. If we belong to Christ, then we belong to His people and the mark of belonging is remaining. It is a dangerous hour. There are plenty of hostile forces at work. What we believe does matter, as does our fellowship with other Christians. We need to be realistic about our enemy, but confident in our Savior [1 Peter 5:8-9].

Staying on course as a Christian [2:24-29]. (1) Let God’s truth remain in you [24-25]. Six times in these six verses John uses the same verb, usually translated abide or remain, continue. John loves this verb, which means ‘to take up a permanent address’, or ‘to make a settled home’. If we want to keep going and keep growing as Christians then the objective truth of God in Christ and in His written Word has to be allowed to settle in our minds and hearts as its permanent home. It is not so much that we need to be learning new truth. Rather, we need to be learning more deeply and practicing more fully the great truths we have been aware of from the start of our Christian experience (the beginning). Many of us modern Christians spend comparatively little time allowing the majestic truths of our faith to settle deeply into our consciousness. We spend a lot of time talking about our experience of living the Christian life, but not so much dwelling on the character of God, the person of Christ, His atoning death, His resurrection life, the person and activity of the Holy Spirit, and then our universal human sinfulness, the grace of God in salvation, the process of becoming like Jesus (sanctification) and the hope of glory. These truths exist as living realities, independent of us, but they need to be permanently living in our minds and wills. As with children, we shall need to be fed milk before we can progress to solids, but it is only by feeding on God’s truth that we can grow as Christians at all. John is telling us that it is only as we make time to let God’s Word work deeply in our lives that we shall remain in God. And this is the promise that he made to us – eternal life [25]. Eternal life begins here and now as the Holy Spirit comes to take up residence within the born again Christian, planting the life of God within the soul of man. We enter a personal relationship with Him through faith which unites us to God now and forever. The future inheritance is already, in part, a present possession. But the way we remain in God, deepening our knowledge  of and love for Him, and becoming fruitful Christians, is by ensuring that His truth has the priority in our lives. We shall never outgrow the need of His Word as our daily diet, any more than we outgrow the need for daily food.

(2) Let God’s anointing teach you [26-27]. Again there is a contrast between the false and the true, the counterfeit and the real. The false teachers wanted to lead Christians astray in order to gain power over them and to conscript them into their own clique. That sort of empire-building still lies behind many of the divisions caused by false teaching today. In order to experience God’s truth inwardly we are dependent on God’s anointing [27]. John’s thought is that New Testament Christians have been equipped with God’s grace to live in the truth by the Holy Spirit whom God has poured out on every one of His redeemed people. Just as we were dependent on the Spirit for our initial understanding of the gospel and response to it, so He continues to apply God’s truth increasingly in our lives. The antidote to falling into false ideas of the Christian faith is to be found in holding fast to the initial statement of Christian truth, given in the apostolic witness, as this is confirmed in our hearts by the anointing given by the Spirit. It is against this background that we are to understand John’s statement, you have no need that anyone should teach you. What he means here is that because the Holy Spirit is the divine teacher given to each and every believer, there is no additional secret knowledge into which they need a gnostic sect leader to initiate them. The Holy Spirit is the author of the apostolic testimony (our New Testament) which is His great teaching tool. If you have God’s Word in your hand and God’s Spirit in your heart you have everything you need to understand truth and grow in Christ. Don’t go on a ceaseless quest for novelty. Just as it has taught you, abide in Him. The Spirit gives life and freshness to the truth. He revives and restores our spiritual experience as He teaches us what we need to know and enables us to respond in faith that obeys. It is his central task to make Jesus real and precious to us [John 16:14], and so to enable us to remain in Him.

(3) Let your life be rooted in Christ [28-29]. As we see that the secret of Christian perseverance is to remain in Christ, our minds go back at once to the Lord’s parable of the vine and the branches in chapter 15 of John’s Gospel. There is an organic union between the stem and the branch which enables the latter to be fruitful. So it is with the Christian. This is the only way we can stay on course as Christians and fulfill God’s purposes of fruitful living. If this world is passing away [17] and if it is the last hour [18], then we, of all people, should have a clear vision of our future. The Lord Jesus is going to appear, we shall meet Him, either with joy or shame, with anticipation or regret. John’s great desire for his dear children is that it may be with confidence, a word which implies freedom of speech and joyful access, and not the shame that turns away from Him. We can only have confidence if we continue in Him now; but it is the assured outcome of that daily lifestyle. Perhaps our present attitude towards His coming gives us some idea of whether or not we are ready to meet Him. That leads us to verse 29, where John highlights for us the present result of truly remaining in Christ. If I am in Christ, as a branch is in the stem of the vine, then the life of Christ must be flowing through me producing its own characteristic fruit of Christ-likeness, or holiness. Being righteous is really being like Jesus. When Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23, he is drawing a pen-picture of Christ. The logical consequence of my being in Him and His being in me is that my life will be increasingly characterized by doing what is right. The habit of righteousness is the proof of the relationship. This is the ultimate guarantee of reality. Everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him. So the knowing of the fact at the beginning of the verse leads to the recognition of the logical consequence in the second part of the verse. And as if to underline all that he has been saying, John reminds us that the heart of Christian experience is being born of him.” [Jackman, pp. 67-79].

Questions for Discussion: 

  1. We are living in a time where believers are engaged in a battle for truth. Our pluralistic culture attacks the absolute truth claims of the bible. In these verses John instructs us on how we are to fight this battle. What instructions does he give us? What are our weapons? What continuous activity must we be involved in to prepare us to be God-honoring warriors in this battle?
  2. Describe what John means by antichrists. What means can we use to discern antichrists in our time? How are we to use belief and behavior to discern the work of antichrists? What key doctrine do antichrists deny? Why does the denial of central Biblical doctrines always result in unbiblical behavior?
  3. How are we to counteract antichrists? What beliefs and behavior must we practice in order to combat the false teachings of antichrists?
  4. One of John’s favorite words is “abide.” What does he mean by “abide?” What are we to abide in? How are we to grow stronger in our abiding? What antidote does John give us for not falling into false teaching? What is the only way we can stay on course as Christians and fulfill God’s purposes of fruitful living?

References:

The Message of John’s Letters, David Jackman, Inter Varsity.

1, 2, & 3 John, Karen Jobes, Zondervan.

The Letters of John, Colin Kruse, Eerdmans.

1-3 John, Robert Yarbrough, ECNT, Baker.